Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is confident she can keep her promise to end boil-water advisories on reserves within four years, even though a third of the water systems are at risk of failing and the number of advisories has dropped only slightly since the 2015 federal election.
"We will get this done because the will is there and the capacity is just rising," Dr. Bennett said on Thursday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "People are really serious about long-term solutions and not patchwork quilts any more."
Successive governments have acknowledged a national shame in the fact that many First Nations people cannot get clean water from their taps. Some boil-water advisories on reserves – where Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) pays for virtually all infrastructure, and sets most of the rules for the design and construction of the water treatment plants – are decades old.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to end the need for those advisories by 2021, and the federal government is pouring billions into First Nations water treatment. The 2016 federal budget allocated an additional $1.8-billion over five years for the required infrastructure. But a study by The Globe found that one-third of First Nations had systems that are at medium or high risk of producing unsafe water, according to INAC's assessment criteria.
A boil-water advisory generally means the water is not safe to drink and should be boiled before it is consumed.
Fourteen long-term advisories were ended during the first year of the Trudeau government. But for every system that gets fixed, others remain in disrepair and are at high risk of failing. As of Nov. 30, Health Canada reported 130 advisories in effect in 85 communities; a year earlier, the tally was 139 in 94 communities.
The lack of significant progress over the first year raises questions about whether the government will meet its goal.
Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said Canada has one of the largest freshwater supplies in the world.
"I find it completely appalling that not every child in this country can turn on the tap and get a clean glass of water that doesn't make them sick. Without clean water, children are exposed to all kinds of health risks, and it is a neglect," she said on Thursday at an unrelated news conference.
But Dr. Bennett said her government set a plan in motion with the five-year budget commitment and it is progressing as expected.
In the past, she said, when water-plant funding was promised for a year or two, the time period time for getting the money approved would end before First Nations had their plans in order. That will not happen now, Dr. Bennett said.
Over the years, she said, some First Nations have been persuaded to build more complex facilities than they required, which made it difficult to find trained people to operate them. Today, if a more basic system will suffice, that will be installed, she said.
"We are there to, not only build the most appropriate kind of facility," she said, but "to provide the operations and maintenance dollars and to be really interested in training community members to be able to run these facilities in the long term. That means that each project is customized to the real unique situations of every community."
It is true that 71 long-term boil-water advisories are in effect, Dr. Bennett said. But of the 12 that were added since November, 2015, three have been lifted, she said.
And some First Nations have multiple advisories at different locations – Slate Falls, Ont., for instance – has 10. "So, if we can get them a new system, we then lift all 10," Dr. Bennett said.
Meanwhile, she said, the government is closely monitoring on-reserve water plants that are at high or medium risk and making improvements.
"This is about First Nations communities really taking pride in how important it is for their people to have clean drinking water," Dr. Bennett said.